Clark's down -- but touts new support

He's had an erratic showing, but some important political -- and Hollywood -- players see him as the only alternative to Dean.

Published November 15, 2003 11:26PM (EST)

By most measures, the candidacy of Gen. Wesley Clark for the Democratic presidential nomination to this point has been something of a disappointment: He has struggled to articulate his positions, his organization remains unsettled and, after an initial surge following his announcement in September, his numbers have declined in many public polls.

And yet somehow Clark has continued to line up institutional support among elected officials, party leaders and top fundraisers. Campaign aides say they're on target to raise more than $6 million this quarter -- with the help of fundraisers in Hollywood and New York -- which would probably top every other candidate except for Howard Dean. (Dean will be aiming to top his previous quarterly total of $15 million.) In addition, they are continuing to announce new endorsements: On Friday, the campaign officially announced support from Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., bringing his total of congressional endorsements to 14, with the prospect of several more in the next several days, according to aides.

How to explain this mystery? Howard Dean. Since Clark's official announcement in September, Clark has fallen from his self-proclaimed role as "frontrunner" to back in the pack with everyone else, struggling to stay competitive with Dean. For many of the Democratic insiders who look with horror upon the prospect of a Dean candidacy, which they think would end in defeat against George Bush, Clark has become their last hope.

Hence the endorsements, which continue to come despite Clark's mediocre reviews in the press and sag in the polls. "Howard Dean, I think, is probably likely at this point to be our nominee, but I am concerned about him on temperament issues, and on how he'll come across in the day-to-day give and take of a general election campaign," said Weiner. "He's going to be very difficult for anyone to beat in the primary, and the feeling in the party has already gone from 'I wonder who the alternative will be' to 'Holy shit -- I think this guy is going to win.'

"I think that Clark is a better choice, and would be our best general-election candidate, and I want to be involved, to make sure that he survives the early hiccups in his campaign to stay viable," he said.

This week seemed to be particularly rough. It started with a critical piece in the New Yorker magazine on Clark's military record (a piece that was criticized on Slate); his support for a constitutional amendment banning the desecration of the American flag sent his staff into heavy spin mode and seemed at odds with his usual stump speech, which defends dissent as a patriotic right. This followed previous, early stumbles, such as when he first said he would have voted to authorize the war in Iraq had he been in Congress, and then later suggested otherwise.

Donors, too, seem willing to work through those hiccups, with Clark continuing to receive star treatment in Democratic money centers. On Nov. 16, for example, he will be the beneficiary and honored guest at a fundraiser in Hollywood hosted by writer/producer Norman Lear, restaurateur Peter Morton, comedian Larry David and film executive Mike Medavoy, among others, which the campaign expects will net $500,000. They are also planning an event in New York on Dec. 9 (which he'll attend instead of a Democratic debate in New Hampshire with all the other candidates) that they expect to raise another $1.5 million. Clark has already benefited from strong support in the community of Clinton donors like Alan Patricof, and Victor and Sarah Kovner, and has a number of high-end fundraisers planned for the coming days.

"There are clearly a number of Democratic donors who are still looking for an alternative to Dean and have hit upon Clark," said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson.

Kym Spell, a campaign spokesman, said that Clark's continuing success at raising money and collecting political endorsements was a sign of strength. "We're in a very nice place right now," she said. "We're sending people out to the Feb. 3 states [that hold their primaries after Iowa and New Hampshire] and we can't keep up with all the requests to help with fundraising."

Clark's success in those Feb. 3 primaries will be crucial if he is to remain viable, and he is depending on a strong finish in New Hampshire -- where he plans to spend at least three days before the Jan. 27 contest -- to give him a boost before he heads on to South Carolina and Oklahoma, key states for him.

Within the Clark camp, there have been ongoing arguments over which scenarios would best position him; for instance, whether it would be better for Clark (who is not even competing in Iowa) if Dean was beaten early by one of the other Democrats, or if Dean swept the first two contests, potentially allowing the general to rally scared anti-Dean voters to him in time for the subsequent round of primaries. "There's a real division about what outcome they want in Iowa," said Weiner. "Do they want Richard Gephardt to emerge as winner and slow Dean down, or do they want to have a fever pitch about 'Oh my God, we have to stop Dean in South Carolina!'?"

But while Clark's supporters are arguing over the best path forward, some political analysts are asking whether, at this point, Clark isn't already beyond help. "Clark had the potential because of his bio and because he was the antiwar general who could make up for the one perceived weakness of the Democrats on foreign policy and national security," said pollster John Zogby. "And when he jumped in, no other Democrats were really dominant and he went straight to the top of the polls. But what I've seen [since] then has been unimpressive, so much so that he had to drop out of Iowa."

And he's lost ground in New Hampshire, where he was once in third place with about 11 percent. "Now he's back down to 5 or 6," Zogby says. "There's no way you spin a fourth or fifth place finish in New Hampshire as having the legs to continue -- the money dries up and voters look at other candidates. You've got to win somewhere."

By Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

MORE FROM Josh Benson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------